Effective Staff Recruitment and Retention: Or, How to Compete When McDonald's is Paying $8 an Hour!

by Daryl Rothman, L.C.S.W.

Whenever I present to a group of camp counselors, teachers, directors, and other educators, I tell them all — even the fifteen-year-old counselor-in-training — that there is no job in the world more important than theirs — and that theirs is the work of heroes. Perhaps some of this is “shtick” designed to enhance the power of the message, but that message would nonetheless fail to resonate if I were disingenuous. What could be more critical, after all, than having the opportunity to help shape the lives of youth? Since none of us should be in this field for the money, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of the nobility of our calling.

While getting rich is one thing, you certainly have to make a living at the very least. Those of you charged with recruiting, hiring, training, and — perhaps most challenging — retaining staff are well aware of the difficulty of doing so in a profession in which compensation is rarely commensurate with effort or impact. In developing a game plan, it is helpful to consider what is more or less likely to attract, motivate, and retain employees. If you can answer these questions, this may shed some light on how to successfully recruit and retain other staff.

Consider the simple, but perhaps sometimes overlooked caveat — your goal must not be merely to recruit and retain staff. As you are charged with finding employees to whom you will entrust the welfare and education of children, your mandate must instead transcend to recruiting and retaining the very best staff. With the aforementioned financial realities in mind, this can prove an even more arduous endeavor than originally thought. So what to do? While there is no set blueprint for success — the want-ads would otherwise be rendered obsolete — you should record and hone and share those approaches that have proven successful.

Never Hire From a Position of Weakness

One key pitfall to avoid — albeit it's difficult at times — is hiring from a position of weakness. You probably have experienced the crunch when the camp season or school year is fast approaching, and you still have staff to hire. There is an applicant who really wants to work — and though he didn’t interview terribly well and his references weren’t too hot and you have a funny feeling about him — well, you REALLY need staff, particularly males, and couldn’t you just take the chance and hope everything works out? If you have ever succumbed to desperation, you would likely attest that resisting temptation would have been the wiser course of action. Better to continue to tough it out for awhile and aim to procure the right staff, than to spend even more time confronting greater problems down the road when your suspicions about the appropriateness of your selection are confirmed.

Maintain a Position of Strength and Expectation

Maintaining a position of strength and expectation, rather than weakness and desperation, is crucial to the process and extends beyond merely passing on inappropriate candidates. Starting with the recruiting process, convey key information, benefits, and expectations about your agency, camp, or program. Doing so increases the likelihood of attracting sincerely interested applicants — applicants whose abilities and experience correspond to your needs. This process should continue in the interview stage. In addition to garnering the standard information about each candidate, use this time to continue to educate him or her about your school, center, or camp; about your vision; and about what is expected of them. Pose scenarios and questions to gauge the appropriateness of the potential match. This communication process must not fade out after the interview — it should, in fact, intensify once the hire has been made — serving as the foundation of individual and group orientation and ongoing training. A vision for vision’s sake can prove hokey and useless — returning consistently and practically to a vision can keep a staff focused and motivated.

A Good Sales Job

While groveling or hiring from a position of weakness is inappropriate, you should do a good sales job when seeking to attract the best candidates. In the early childhood, youth development, education, and camp arenas, it is sometimes the case that candidates can earn equal or greater pay working at fast food or other jobs — though they may pale in comparison in their ability to offer intrinsic rewards.

Your task is then two-fold:

  • Sell the many intrinsic rewards of the camp and youth development industry.
  • Detail the remuneration and benefits working at camp can offer.

Let’s assume that you can offer at least competitive compensation, perhaps benefits, and even other perks — does your agency offer ongoing training and/or continued education? If so, sell these perks and benefits. Your agency, for example, might offer a general membership to staff during their time of employment — enabling them to enjoy swimming, racquetball, fitness equipment, and other perks they would otherwise have to pay for elsewhere. Promote these added personal benefits to the intrinsic value of working with youth.

Show Them You Care

Once you recruit, hire, and train good staff, don’t forget about them. Just as it is easy for good teachers or counselors to neglect the best-behaved children in their classroom or camp group, so too it is easy to take for granted your best staff — who rarely bother you with problems or complaints. Just as you exhort your staff to notice and reinforce their “best” children, so too must you notice and reinforce them. Failure to do so can lead to their departure.

There is usually nothing complicated about this process. Typically all it takes is a simple “thank-you.” Be specific. Don’t patronize staff with general and syrupy praise, such as, “You’re the best.” If this is what you feel, articulate why. “I noticed how you redirected Joey the other day, while keeping the group focused on the activity. I know that wasn’t easy, and you should feel good about it.” Tell the parents about the wonderful things your staff does — write it up in a newsletter or on a bulletin board.

Treat Them as Professionals

One critical component is to demand that staff consider themselves professionals — and to always treat them as such. Your staff are not just camp counselors or day care workers — they are professionals in a field that is critical in our society. Convey to staff that in addition to caring for kids, their responsibilities include writing reports, meeting with parents, developing curriculum and themes, dealing with difficult situations, assisting with licensing or accreditation efforts, and much more. Raise the bar of expectations and involvement — and higher performance and satisfaction often follows. Have staff play integral roles in meetings and trainings. Ask them to mentor new or younger staff. At the end of the day, if you can infuse a healthy dose of communication, professionalism, and respect into your recruitment and retention efforts, your job will be all the more rewarding.


Daryl Rothman is an early childhood site supervisor, camp director, and public speaker.



Originally published in the 2004 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.